Most teenagers attending public school in the United States take some kind of sexual education class. But that doesn't mean classes in Knoxville and New York City are going to have much of anything in common. In some states, the prevailing cultural norms are all about signing virginity pledges, wearing promise rings, and bringing fathers to purity balls. Elsewhere in America, schools teach students how to put condoms on bananas, identify sexually transmitted diseases, and explore same-sex relationships.
Indeed, the education that an American student receives is largely dependent on the whims of state lawmakers, and this year, at least seven states have proposed clamping down on comprehensive sexual education in favor of an anti-abortion or abstinence-based approach.
Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, which champions sex education for teenagers, says the country saw the biggest surge of pro-abstinence measures during the Bush administration. But they are still introduced today. In particular, ever since President Obama launched the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which gives states $55 million annually to use toward "evidence-based" education about sex and contraception, she says, "We're seeing some backlash from state legislators."
It's also not just happening at the state level. In Congress, lawmakers kicked off the year by proposing an unusual Valentine's Day gift: $550 million in ObamaCare grants, to be competitively awarded to organizations that provide "sexual risk avoidance education" to teenagers. To be eligible, programs must teach the "clear advantage of reserving human sexual activity for marriage" and ensure that "any information provided on contraception does not exaggerate its effectiveness." The House bill, introduced by Reps Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), has 28 Republican co-sponsors and the support of one Democrat (there's also a corresponding Senate bill). Democrats have their own alternative: The pro-sex-education "Real Education for Healthy Youth Act of 2013."
Even if no changes are made to ObamaCare, there are still a number of state bills hoping to kick condoms out of the classroom. Here's a rundown of seven:
1. In Texas, a GOP-backed bill would make it illegal for any organization that provides abortions, or is affiliated with an abortion clinic, to provide sex education or materials to public schools. The bill is specifically aimed at Planned Parenthood, which has already seen its funding slashed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Because of these funding cuts, Texas is expected to see nearly 24,000 unplanned births next year, and nearly 200,000 Texas women have lost or could lose access to family planning and preventative care.)
"It makes no sense to attack sex education, which is supported by parents, science, and leading medical organizations like the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association," says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
2. Kansas passed a bill on April 19 that bans Planned Parenthood from providing sex ed in public schools, too.
3. Over in Arkansas, a state Senate committee voted to advance a bill that would bar the state from disbursing federal grants to facilities that perform abortions — which would have the effect of ending an STD and HIV prevention program for thousands of people in the Little Rock area.
"I would challenge any legislator or politician in the state of Arkansas or higher to set foot in my classroom and listen to the curriculum and walk out and say it's a bad program," Darrell Seward, the assistant football coach and health education teacher at Little Rock Central High School, told The Huffington Post. He added, "I am a Republican."
5. North Carolina is revising sex education by proposing a bill that would require teachers to tell their students that having an abortion increases a woman's risk for having subsequent premature births — even though virtually all major U.S. health organizations haven't endorsed the link.
6 and 7. In Ohio and North Dakota, bills sought to target sex education programs and funding, though both have been defeated. The Ohio bill went so far as to propose fining public school teachers $5,000 if they distributed contraceptive materials or taught "any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with sexual activity."
Most people agree that the U.S. needs to figure out what to do about teens and sex: Half of sexually active Americans will have a sexually transmitted disease by age 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association. And this year, 750,000 teenagers will get pregnant, according to Planned Parenthood. But U.S. lawmakers are a long way from consensus on what, exactly, to do about it.
"We have to be honest with ourselves, 95 percent of Americans are going to have sex before marriage, and it's crucial that teens have information about both contraception and abstinence," says Hauser. "We have to reinforce that teens can say no to sex, but they have the personal agency to make that decision."